March 28 – April 19, 2003
By Indradyumna Swami
After the festival in Laguna Beach, Sri Prahlad and I continued our two-month preaching tour of North America, visiting New Vrindavan, as well as temples in San Jose, Pittsburg, Columbus and Chicago. As we sat at a departure gate in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport waiting for a flight to Toronto, Canada I picked up a USA Today newspaper that someone had left on the seat and began glancing through the photographs and articles about the Iraq War. United States Marines were securing strategic points throughout the capital, Bhagdad, while British soldiers from the 2nd Light Tank Regiment were patrolling the streets of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. Drawn to the piece about the Marines I read on, noting their courage and skill in battle. At one point I stopped and reflected on my own time in the Marines, taking pride that in 1968 I had excelled in advanced infantry training, particularly use of the M60 machine gun, my preferred weapon.
Suddenly, I threw the paper to the side. “What in the world am I doing?” I admonished myself. “A sannyasi being nostalgic about his former activities! Vantasi!” (Vantasi means one who savors that which he has rejected – literally the food from his stomach.) Embarrassed, I took my beads and chanted, looking around to see if anyone had noticed me. No one had, for everyone was absorbed in reading the same material.
The departure lounge was packed with thousands of people on their way to various destinations across America, but when we boarded the plane I was surprised to find it only half full. “It seems strange,” I said to Sri Prahlad, “that there’s hardly anyone on this flight.” Passing through immigration at Toronto after the flight we discovered the reason when we read a huge sign: “Warning! Sars in Toronto. Take Precautions.”
At least 165 people around the world have died from severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), a mysterious flu-like condition originating in southern China, the advanced stages of which can lead to death from pneumonia. The illness, which has spread as carriers travel on airplanes, has infected about 3300 people. Canada, and Toronto in particular, has been hit hard with thirteen fatalities in almost three weeks and several thousand in quarantine. From an immigration brochure I learned that although health officials have located the viral strain to which Sars belongs, they know little else about it other than it is spread by coming into close contact with people who have been exposed to the disease.
We were met outside the terminal by our hosts, Kishore and Arlini Singh, a devotee couple whom I have known for years. Originally from South Africa, they moved to Canada with their two children six years ago. Kishore, a doctor, works in a hospital in Toronto. On the way to their home, Kishore told me that Sars had forced most hospitals in the city to close for everything but emergencies. He also said a number of schools had been closed.
I said, “Well, there’s not much danger for us, as you’re a doctor. In which department of the hospital do you work?”
He replied, “In the emergency ward.”
“Oh,” I said with some trepidation. “Have you seen any cases of Sars?”
“I’ve attended to several patients exhibiting symptoms,” he said, “but it’s a strange disease. You can’t be sure it’s Sars until the advanced stages – and by then you’ve been exposed.”
“Interesting,” I said, fidgeting in my seat.
The next morning we went to the Toronto temple, a former church built in 1896 and acquired by the devotees in the early 1980s. There is a similar church on the opposite side of the road. The churches originally marked the border of the city and were known as the Gateway. That day about forty students and their professor from a nearby Catholic school were visiting the temple and I gave them a short lecture about Krsna consciousness. The kids listened attentively for five minutes – and then I lost them. Speaking to students is one of my favorite services, but that day I was tired from five weeks of traveling to the temples around the U.S. – and a little rusty too. I hadn’t spoken to a group of students in more than a year. I was anxious if my talk would have any affect on them. Each time I deliver a lecture to new people it always makes me reflect that after millions of births they are finally getting the chance to hear about Krsna. My presentation could, in effect, determine if they will be inspired to inquire further – or lose interest and miss a rare opportunity. A traveling preacher bears a great responsibility.
“A sadhu like Vidura is meant to awaken such blind persons [like Dhrtarastra] and thus help them go back to Godhead, where life is eternal. Once going there, no one wants to come back to this material world of miseries. We can just imagine how responsible a task is entrusted to a sadhu like Mahatma Vidura.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.13.23, purport]
When I asked the students for questions there were none, and so I quickly introduced the next item on the program, a kirtan. As Sri Prahlad began chanting, to my astonishment all of the students got up and started singing and dancing. After the program many of them came forward to express their appreciation. I concluded that their initial reluctance was simply because Canadians are more reserved than the Americans to whom I have been preaching recently.
That evening we did a home program in nearby Scarborough, the domain of many local gangs and one of the areas affected by the Sars outbreak. Despite these hellish conditions, the couple who hosted the evening’s program have created what can only be described as an embassy to the spiritual world in their home, which features a large temple room with 6ft marble Radha-Krsna Deities. I began my lecture early, and watched with amusement as each guest who entered the temple room gasped in surprise at the sheer size and beauty of the Deities. While taking prasadam, the lady of the house told me how the Deities appeared in their home.
An Indian gentleman living in Scarborough had ordered the Deities from India about seven years ago. Only one week after Their arrival, he had died. His elderly and somewhat senile mother thought the Deities were the cause of her son’s sudden death and angrily had some local workers place Radha and Krsna on the front lawn to endure the sub-zero temperatures of the Canadian winter. A concerned friend informed our hosts about the Deities and suggested the couple bring Them to their home. Arrangements were finalised over the phone and the couple went to pick up the Deities. That’s when they discovered that the Deities weighed two tons! The couple had to order a truck to transport Them. As they wheeled the Deities into their home on a heavy duty trolley, with the help of numerous family members and friends, they were afraid the Deities would go through the floor of their old wooden house. Soon after they started worshipping the Deities their business began to prosper, and within a short time they were able to build a new home with a temple room for their Lordships.
On one of our days in Toronto Sri Prahlad and I took some time to rest and catch up on correspondence. As we sat in the Singhs’ lounge, I looked out the window and noticed there were few people on the street. When I mentioned this, Kishore said that in suburbs most residents spend the day at work in the city, and he rarely saw his neighbors except on weekends in their gardens. He then related a story which demonstrates the irony of material existence.
Three months ago a welder was working in the house across the street when a spark from his blowtorch set the place on fire. Soon the house next door was ablaze – and then the next one. The owners of the third house were to be married the next day and had not even taken up residence. They had completely redecorated the house, and even had their wedding presents arranged in a neat pile in the living room. But the whole building burned down. The fire department had arrived in time to save the house, but the fire hydrant on the street hadn’t been connected to the water system – the city had planned to do it the day the newlyweds were to have arrived.
The story reminded me of a Bengali song:
“Because of a great desire to have all happiness in life, I built this house. But unfortunately the whole scheme has turned to ashes because the house was unexpectedly set on fire.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.2, purport]
Sri Prahlad and I worked diligently answering emails and making phone calls. Much of my concern revolved around this year’s Festival of India Tour in Poland, now only weeks away. Nandini dasi and Radha Sakhi Vrnda dasi have been working all winter on securing a base and organising festivals in a new area. As expected, they have met friends and foes. Once again it seems the Catholic Church is lining up against our campaign to preach Krsna consciousness. Recently, however, there have been indications that the barriers may be coming down. Last month there was a conference at Kracow University in which several speakers said that groups such as ISKCON should not be referred to as sects or cults, but as new religious movements. Some liberal-minded Dominican monks were among the speakers. The Dominicans have always considered ISKCON an enemy (and they lead much of the anti-cult activity in the country), but at the conference some suggested that propaganda about new religious movements needed to be studied carefully because the adverse statements of anti-cult groups cannot be confirmed.
Although the Dominican presentation does not represent Church policy, I am encouraged that if we continue preaching we will ultimately prevail and win the hearts of the masses. I often remember Srila Prabhupada’s words, “First they will laugh at you, then they will harass you, and finally they will accept you.” In America during the movement’s early days, people thought the devotees were cute and laughed at them. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that problems with anti-cult groups began. But now, more than ever, I am finding people are open to Krsna consciousness in America. Unfortunately, there are not many senior preachers around to take advantage of the opportunities.
I am waiting for the day when our opposition in Poland is silenced and people can take advantage of the mercy we are trying so hard to give them. Meanwhile we have to remain vigilant. Even though our foes may try to thwart us, I am hankering for this year’s festivals to begin. In Bhagavad-gita Krsna says that He is “flower bearing spring.” For myself, spring means the renewal of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtan movement, a chance to introduce Krsna consciousness in a dynamic way to the people of Poland – be they friend or foe.
“If one sincerely tries his best to spread Krsna consciousness by preaching the glories of the Lord and His supremacy, even if he is imperfectly educated, he becomes the dearmost servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is bhakti. As one performs this service for humanity, without discrimination between friends and enemies, the Lord becomes satisfied, and the mission of one’s life is fulfilled.”
[Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.6.24, purport]